November, November, the month to remember…
…but for too many of our dogs and cats, fireworks make it a month they want to forget! With Fireworks Season stretching from October to January nowadays, while it may be fun for us, it’s horrible for them. In this blog, we’re going to think about all the things we can do to help them.
We can break down the approaches into a nice simple ABC…
The best thing you can do for a scared pet is teach them how not to be scared any more. Now, that might sound like a fantasy – but it can be done (yes, honest!). Dogs and cats are intelligent animals, and can learn to adapt to all sorts of odd situations (how natural is it to live in a warm centrally heated house with humans, when you come to think of it? But they seem quite happy!). However, when they’re scared of the nasty noises outside, they need all our help to do so.
The best approach is called desensitisation with counter-conditioning. In most dogs and cats, it takes several months – so start sooner rather than later. The basic principle is simple – pets may hate loud bangs and whizzes, but there are other things they love. For a greedy dog, it might be a particularly luscious treat; a cat might prefer a favourite pouncing toy; while an active collie loves a ball to chase. So if you play firework noises (very softly, so it’s quiet enough not to be terrifying) and then reward them with their special treat when they’re calm, most animals will rapidly learn to be chilled out. You can then raise the volume gradually over weeks and months until even a full-blown fireworks display is greeted with “let’s play!” or “feed me!”.
That said, if your pet is more “terrified” than “nervous”, it could be a long old road, and a complicated one, so it’s best to consult a good clinical behaviourist – your vet will be able to refer you to one if needed.
We can also take active measures to help our pets chillax. Probably the most effective option is to use pheromones (natural chemical signals that promote calmness). Adaptil for dogs and Feliway for cats are both effective, and work gently and naturally to keep anxiety at bay.
There are also a wide range of calmers and herbal products; I particularly like Zylkene, which is based on milk protein. Although it isn’t proven yet, I’ve found it usually works pretty well! However, be very cautious about using human calmers and remedies in dogs and cats – they can be toxic to our furry friends.
A scared dog or cat is potentially a danger to themselves… So, make sure you’re prepared and give them every chance to cope with the horridness outside! It’s really important to make sure that your pets are safely indoors before dark – yes, cats too – and that all the doors, windows and cat- or dog-flaps are securely closed. That way, the noise won’t be as loud, and even if they are frightened, they can’t escape and get lost or (worse) run out into traffic in a blind panic.
In the house, it’s also a very good idea to make sure they’ve got a safe, secure den or nest – somewhere they can feel safe and hide away in until all the nastiness has stopped. This might be a cat carrier, or a space behind the sofa, or even the cage they slept in as a puppy – but fill it with their blankets so it’s comfy and smells safe, and put a few toys in so it’s more homely. For dogs, put it where they like to hide; for cats, it might be best to get it nice and high up, where they’ll feel safer.
You can do a lot at home – but some pets are so frightened it may take months or years before they get used to the idea that fireworks don’t have to be scary. For these poor souls, vets can prescribe medication to help them relax, whatever’s happening outside. Not the old-fashioned sedatives that knocked them sideways but left them still scared, but a newer generation of anti-anxiety medications. Some of these can even be used to help them learn to adapt; others are better given on the night to help them sleep peacefully through fireworks nights. If you think your pet needs a bit of a medical helping hand, make an appointment to see your vet about it.
The bottom line?
If you remember nothing else, remember A for Adapt, B for Be Calm, C for Cope and D for De-stress. And if in any doubt – give your vet a call and they’ll be more than happy to help!